Fragments of past Empires

Eastward to Tartary     By Robert Kaplan

  Random House, 2000, 384 pp, ($26.95, $14 paperback) ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


    Robert Kaplan travels to areas which tourists rarely see. His "Ends of the Earth" starts in Sierra Leone and ends in Cambodia, his "Balkan Ghosts" surveys the fragments of Yugoslavia and their neighbors, and "East to Tartary" wends its way through Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey to Syria, Jordan and Israel, then continues to the fragmented nations of the Caucasus and ends in the deserts of Turkmenistan east of the Caspian Sea, part of what Victorian Britain knew as "Tartary."

    After one crosses the Carpathian mountains between Hungary and Romania, he notes, the social climate changes, from that of western Europe to one bearing the imprint of Ottoman Turkey and its empire, which once covered much of that area. It is a part of the world where democracy is the exception, not the rule, where bloody history has left marks all over, intolerant nationalism (often with religious overtones) is rampant, and where poverty and neglect are widespread and getting worse. Yet those countries also have a rich political and cultural history, skillfully traced by Kaplan, who prepared himself by extensive reading and by enlisting a supporting network of local friends, all these acknowledged at the end.

    It is uncanny how Kaplan tracks down past leading players in that history--now displaced, aging and living in reduced circumstances with their memories and libraries. He also meets outspoken academics familiar with their countries and history. Too bad that such people tend to talk in the ambiguous jargon of politics and economics, whose meaning is sometimes hard to pin down.

    But the overall picture is clear: trouble now, more trouble to come. Kaplan does not dwell on the population explosion of the 20th century, although he is surely aware of it, but the stress it imposes is evident: cities stagnate with little employment, poverty everywhere, decaying roads, what used to be grand hotels now barely function. In an Armenian city destroyed by earthquake seven years earlier, people still live in makeshift shacks. A few glittering oases buck the trend, sustained by oil money, but even there the benefits seem to stop before reaching the surrounding countryside.

    It is a sober and pessimistic account, ending with visits to the sites of two huge genocides, 700 years apart, by Mongols in Turkmenistan and by Turks against Armenians. Such horrors have happened in the past, history seems to be telling us, and they can happen again. He holds out little hope for democracy in the region, where people free to vote are likely to elect extremists. The multi-ethnic empires of the past, he tells us, were actually more tolerant of minorities and often ruled better and more benevolently than the nationalistic tribal nations which replaced them. The future seems dark. Any freely elected government is not likely to be able to provide all the needs of its people--e.g. security, prosperity, education, and national pride--so, even if one comes to power, it will probably not last. Even oil money can be destabilizing.

    There seem to be lessons here to be learned by all of us. Somewhere a clock is ticking, the count-down has begun.


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Last updated 23 May 2004